I am so excited today to bring the second installment of our Feminist Changemaker Interview Series. Li Lai, founder of Mediaversity Reviews, is one of the first people I connected with on Twitter, and her writing is sharp and insightful. She doesn’t miss a beat.
Mediaversity is the gold standard for inclusive media. This is where you find out if a new show or movie is all about the hetero white guys, or if it works harder on race, gender, and LGBTQ status. Her site is well-established in my household, as my husband ponders “I wonder what Mediaversity would have to say about Westworld?” (Spoiler: it flunked.)
But it has a firm place in our nightly conversations, and it will in yours, too….
Hi Li, thanks for being a part of our Feminist Changemaker Interview Series, and for chatting with me today. Most of my readers have probably heard me talk about your website (because it’s one of my absolute favorites!) and may have read some of your reviews, too. But for the newbies, tell us about why you decided to start Mediaversity Reviews. What was the impetus?
The impetus was purely selfish! I always wanted a reviewer or website I could go to that would consistently review films and TV from a “minority” perspective, since so much of what’s out there is being both created and reviewed by a homogenous group of people—namely, straight white men. But what I like to watch in my free time is crazy different, and I was so sick of the trial and error of watching critically acclaimed things, then realizing they were misogynistic or employed racial stereotypes. I don’t want to watch that crap. So eventually, I started doing my own reviews.
We’ve seen hashtags like #representationmatters to highlight the need for more diverse characters in television and film. Tell us why you think representation matters in our society?
Onscreen representation is a HUGE deal. We’ve known for decades that humans internalize what they see around them, whether it’s in reality or in video. And we mimic what we watch, even when it comes with a disclaimer of being like, “Don’t do this.” This is why we need to be so careful about what gets viewed. After all, TV and film reaches literally billions of people. If the FDA has to give nutrition facts for food, and the MPAA rating is already ubiquitous for film, then where is the “nutrition facts” for entertainment media?
So true! You recently reviewed the Pixar movie, Coco, which is garnering stellar reviews. But you noted something important: there are barely two female characters in the film who speak to each other – the initial hallmark of the Bechdel test. As you note, this is a pretty low threshold. Why is it that writers still can’t manage to pass it?
I think writers write what they know. And when you’re a man, you insert yourself in every scene. So conversations happen with other men, or they happen with women. This is why we need to get more female writers and directors behind the camera.
We need to allow individuals the opportunity to tell their own stories instead of swiping the mic from them and shouting what we think they should be saying.”
You posted an article about Tracy Oliver, the writer of Girls Trip, who said that Hollywood is becoming slightly more receptive to pitches for stories about women of color. Is the needle moving?
Yes, I like to think so! The more evidence that stacks up about how diversity sells, the more this dinosaur of an industry will be forced to adapt, if anything just to ensure their own survival. And hey, if they can’t hang—streaming platforms and other technologies will flood in to supply the demand.
That’s why we, as audience members, need to keep demanding.
Who are your top three favorite writers or producers who are women of color?
Oprah Winfrey, because she’s been doing this song and dance for decades and has really paved the way for others to follow. Ava DuVernay, because how could you not be blown away by her skill and iconic status in this field? And for me personally, I love that Nahnatchka Khan has championed an East Asian American story—Fresh Off the Boat—because as creators, we need to be able to broaden our own work to includes other marginalized groups, not just our own.
I do want to mention though, that for this question I had a hard time thinking of WOC creators off the top of my head beyond Oprah, Ava, and Shonda Rhimes. It’s a major sign that we need more WOC out there in force, being given opportunities that we know have the ability to pay off, if we take anything away from the runaway success of Girls Trip.
Let’s talk about children. Kids have much more access today to a wide range of media, which can be good and bad. What are the best family movies in terms of both diversity and quality? (I haven’t even see Toy Story – help!)
Coco was great! It was one of the most culturally sensitive works to date and the lengths the filmmakers went to get it right should be the gold standard moving forward. Disney’s Moana was also memorable for prioritizing authenticity, casting the Hawaiiain Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson, who is half-Samoan, in lead roles.
I’m glad that you frequently point out the lack of Asian American representation in stories set in California, where representation is much higher than the rest of the country. What’s the deal?
Haha good question, the “deal” is the same deal that’s going on in the industry as a whole—a broken system of gatekeepers who refuse to see value in people of color because it doesn’t align with their own narrow world views. Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley is crammed with a cast that looks like him—straight, male, and white. CBS’ Hawaii Five-0 consistently underrepresents Asian actors for a show set in Asian-majority Hawaii. Are we even surprised that their showrunners include no Asians, and in the last season of the show, just 1 writer and 1 director was of Asian descent?
In an ideal world, people will take the effort to write outside of their comfort zone, the way Coco director Lee Unkrich really strove to get a Mexican story right. It pays off, both creatively and monetarily. But perhaps an easier solution is just to widen the playing field, allowing more Asian Americans into Hollywood so that they can tell their own version of a California that includes its thriving Asian American communities.
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The word “feminist” has gone through many phases and transformations, and it still can be alienating to some people, including women of color. When did you first identify as a feminist and what do you hope for the future of feminism?
I can’t pinpoint the moment I started using the word to describe myself, but I think it was an organic process of waking up to the realities of systemic oppression in our country. By the time I was in my 20s, I could confidently consider myself a feminist. For the future, I hope the word can finally dissolve. Being a feminist is just being a good person.
What was your favorite media moment of 2017?
2017 was such a crazy time for media, in the best way possible! I really can’t name just one—in a serious way, the pushing out of Weinstein and others like him. In a more celebratory fun way, I’m obsessed about how #BlackTwitter turned a fan idea—Rihanna and Lupita Nyong’o in a heist movie—into a real project. Then in a simply frivolous way, Don Lemon completely made New Year’s Eve for me with his sloppy AF CNN broadcast, and it brought so much joy into my life.
I’ve always wanted to see an all-female version of a crime drama like Goodfellas or The Departed. The closest we may get in the near future is Ocean’s Eight, the all-female reboot of Ocean’s Eleven, due out in June 2018. What’s your prediction: will it actually use the female gaze? Will it advance the success of movies like Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, and Girls’ Trip?
I sure hope it employs the female gaze! It isn’t a great sign that the director and half of the writing duo is male, but Gary Ross has a pretty good track record when it comes to how he depicts females. I loved Pleasantville, and The Hunger Games successfully casts a strong female lead. Meanwhile, the female writer Olivia Milch hasn’t written anything I’ve seen so I can’t attest to her filmography. But overall, I’m hugely excited because I want to see that star-studded lineup of ladies kicking ass and making bank.
Thanks to streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, in the past year or two we’ve seen television series centering trans people in Transparent, a non-binary character in Billions, and a pansexual person in Schitt’s Creek, among shows like Orange is the New Black, which has a hefty LGBTQ+ makeup. It feels like LGBTQ+ representations have deepened significantly since the days of Will & Grace in the ’90s, considered progressive at the time by having two white, male gay characters. Are we in the midst of a true shift, or do we still have a long way to go?
We are both in the midst of a true shift, and yet there is always a ways to go! I think filmmakers and showrunners are starting to wake up to the reality that LGBTQ does not just mean two gay white men. It’s exciting to see the whole of America quickly adapting to the idea that gender itself is a spectrum, and to see people educating themselves on what it means to be transgender or asexual. But since these terms are so new to mainstream narratives, that is exactly where the work needs to be done. Bisexuality remains something often expressed through female characters who are often written to be sexually deviant, in a gross mix of both misogyny and the misunderstanding of bisexuality. Trans characters are still being cast with cisgender actors, and that’s something that needs to get better. There is so much trans talent out there; we need to allow individuals the opportunity to tell their own stories instead of swiping the mic from them and shouting what we think they should be saying.
How, if at all, do you think the #metoo movement will impact diversity in the media in 2018 and beyond?
Yep! If I had to choose a single thing that from 2017 that has shook the landscape in ways that will reverberate for years, it’s the #MeToo movement. (And Time Magazine agrees, as they announced the “Silence Breakers” as Person of the Year.) Gender inequality is back in discussion, and in a big way. This will definitely impact how women are portrayed onscreen and offscreen in media, especially considering how Weinstein’s systemic abuse was rooted in the film industry. As these entitled, old-school dinosaurs are rooted out, I can only hope that women and other marginalized groups will fill the void.
We’ve all been here this whole time, on the sidelines, just waiting for entrance into the closed boys’ clubs of TV and film. I hope that 2017 will be remembered as the year we burned that treehouse down and started to build our own fantastical abodes around its ashes.
Thanks Li! For all of you sitting around tonight trying to figure out what to watch, head on over to www.mediaversityreviews.com for the scoop.